“Halloween is coming when we’ll be dressed in funny clothes …” is the beginning of song swirling around in my head from long ago teaching days. The creature that always comes to mind at this season of costumes is the spotted salamander. It always seems dressed properly in October, with its black body decorated generously with bright yellow dots. A little dog in Southwest Harbor even wears a colorful salamander costume in every Halloween parade at the school.
In the wildlife community, there are many creatures that fit in with the Halloween themes of ghost, skeletons, gross and scary-looking life forms. Witches’ butter certainly fits, and it is commonly seen in our local woods. It is a jelly fungus and superficially looks like blobs of orange marmalade spread on bark and stumps. Two jelly fungi can be found: the tremella is more yellow, and in keeping with the season, is translated into “trembling intestines.” The name comes from its appearance, and it grows on hardwoods. Its familiar, called dacrymyces, grows on conifers, has a white base and is more orange in its general color. They are not poisonous.
As you walk through the woods, watch for leaf skeletons on the forest floor. The thinner leaves decay first, leaving a reticulated network of what looks like veins and almost a lacy look. These leaves plus all the other leaves underfoot makes the forest floor very livable for salamanders, wood frogs and many invertebrates. Before leaves fall, almost all of the nutrients from the leaf are transferred back into the tree for winter storage. Nothing is wasted.
I suspect you have at some times found old books in an attic or cellar where grubs from the deathwatch beetle have been chewing. This is a real “bookworm.” If your surroundings in an old house are very quiet, you may hear the “love song” of this beetle. It sounds like a rhythmic, incessant tapping and is done by the male tapping his forehead on the wood to call a mate coming from the wall. The female listens with her hairy feet.
The actual grubs of the bookworm are in their grub-worm stage from three to 10 years. After this, they live as adult feeding beetles for about 10 weeks. There are amazing things going on around us all the time that we are totally unaware of, but that’s what makes life interesting and learning new things a never-ending process your whole life.
I’ve come across numerous mushrooms on my walks these days; their shapes and colors never cease to amaze me. There is one called the witch’s hat, which rightly suggests a pointed cap. One of these has a brightly pointed orange cap and yellow stem, and this one grows in the mixed woods in October. Sometimes they are all black. Its colors can surprise and delight you. Do not eat them. They are most likely to grow on tree roots. Keep alert as you walk in the woods these fall days. Never pick wild mushrooms and eat them unless you are a proven expert on the subject. Take photos to bring home and look them up on the internet if you want to learn more about them or to identify them. If you want to eat mushrooms, buy them in the local markets.
If you think you see a wren these days, it most likely is the winter wren. This wren is a tiny bird with lots of energy, bouncing around in the woods and brush tangles like a feathered ping pong ball. The winter wren is very small, brownish, with an extremely short tail. It gives the appearance of being barred all over, and you most likely will see it on the ground near rotting logs and brush piles where it feeds on any spiders and insects it finds. You may recognize it also by its head bobbing and secretive ways. This mite of a bird’s song is a quite beautiful rendition of trills, chip chips and tinkling twitters, all very highly pitched.
Most of our wood warblers and vireos are gone this month, and vultures will be gone from our skies very soon. If you are curious and interested in the comings and goings of birds and our resident ones, you definitely should pick up the handy bird check list of Acadia National Park at the park office. It is a very useful reference tool if you like birds and you live here.
The northern gannets, nesting in Canada, come into this area especially in November as the young birds look for good fishing grounds. When they are in our waters, they are great fun to watch right from shore. This is prime time for them to be here. If any of you see them, call me and let me know. They are very exciting birds to watch as they dive for fish.
Gannets are large sea birds that are all white except for their black wing tips and the golden buffy color on the top of the bird’s head. I have been able to sit and watch them numerous times at their nesting sites in the St. Lawrence and at various large colonies in Newfoundland. They are fascinating to see on their nests all crowded together at the edge of the sea on spectacular high, rocky cliffs. The noisy colonies are huge with thousands of birds both on the rocks, patches of ground and flying about in the air. Their wingspread is 38 inches, and I actually have ducked a few times as they flew past me. That was exciting. As big as a gannet is, I will never forget sitting on a cliff in Peru where the Andean condors nested and having huge condors fly by the cliff on which I was sitting and have them stare back at me with curiosity as they came close on their enormous outstretched wings, definitely a memorable moment.
Send any questions or observations to me at [email protected] or call 244-3742.